What gives a story legs?
The question of why some mainstream media stories last a week or longer in newspapers and on television, while others fizzle like a dud firework, is one that journalism students and the general public struggle to answer.
Why does the silly prediction of The Rapture captivate the country and dominate the media’s focus, yet stories about Christians imprisoned and religiously persecuted in North Korea only see the light of day in obscure media outlets.
Or what about the story of Casey Anthony, the mom accused of killing her four-year-old daughter, failing to report her missing for a month, and then blaming the death of the child on her abusive father? That story has dominated national news and cable talk shows for almost a year and CNN is even showing the trial live on its web site.
Meanwhile, a strict Muslim man allegedly killed his teenage daughter because she was “too American.” That unfortunate story hasn’t seen the light of day in mainstream newspapers.
A year ago, as pop icon Lady Gaga first caught fire and became a household name, a sixth-grade student at mid-Western school achieved national fame by performing the singer’s hit “Paparazzi,” while playing piano. The performance became an internet viral hit, and earned him a performance on “Ellen,” in front of millions of people.
Clearly, other talented youngsters are out there, with better vocals and abilities. Why him?
The answer is photographs and video.
In each of these examples, the difference between the stories with legs and those that crashed and burn, is that successful stories had video or photos to accompany them.
The public, the mass audiences, develop emotional connections with people on TV or their images in the newspaper.
The recent frenzy over failed Rapture erupted into of the biggest stories of the decade because Harold Camping was right there, on TV, in America’s homes ever week. Street corner prophets predict the Rapture with some regularity, and it has yet to happen.
Camping does it and he’s on every newspaper and television station in America.
Casey Anthony was photographed in skimpy outfits and sexually suggestive clothing in the days after she went missing. Her parents helped her media cause, frequently taking part in fights with journalists outside their home.
Greyson Michael Chance performed his way onto National TV because someone put his high school video on YouTube.
Although the media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, some truths are timeless. Television, video, and pictures make people stars.
In an era of diminishing gratification and diminishing attention spans, seeing it, truly is believing it.
For aspiring journalists, however, it is important to raise the level of thinking.
Some stories have legs, but clearly shouldn’t. It’s a journalist’s responsibility to consider all factors that make something newsworthy.
• Timeliness/immediacy—is it happening now?
• Impact—who and how many people are affected?
• Prominence—who’s involved? Are the subjects people who everyday readers will know and identify with?
• Proximity—is it happening here and now? What happens in your hometown is usually more interesting than what happens across the globe.
• Conflict—are competing interests colliding? A story is newsworthy when there’s a tension between good and bad, right and wrong, or just conflicting interests. Young journalists should think of a favorite movie, book, or TV show, and identify the conflict. The more emotional the conflict, the better the story.
• Emotion—does the story create an emotional reaction in the reader? Emotions often carry the day in breaking news stories. When a mother in Florida takes the life of her child, it’s doesn’t really affect the mother in Texas directly; instead it creates emotion in the reader. Breaking news stories are full of emotion.
• Novelty—increasingly, stories that are unusual in nature are becoming front page news. The pastor predicting the end of the world is a novel act. It doesn’t happen every day. The sixth-grader singing about the dangers of fame and obsession among celebrities, as he does in Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi’s” is unique because one wouldn’t expect a kid to take a pop song and turn it into a classical piece of music paired with above-average vocal abilities.
Many people these days talk about the demise of the mainstream media and the end of journalism.
Now more than ever journalists have to step up and elevate their standards.
Stories have legs ultimately because video and photos too often can act as a crutch to newsgathering. Stories don’t often need to be thoroughly reported when there is a raw, unedited video telling the story.
Journalists should remember that what should truly give a story legs is depth of reporting and the ability of the journalist to explain how the story affects and impacts people’s everyday lives.
To use one final example, the recent Pulitzer Prize winning investigative coverage of the city of Bell in Los Angeles didn’t need video or pictures to have legs. Instead, the journalist showed how immediacy, conflict, proximity, prominence, novelty, emotions, and impact are the measures of how to make a story have legs.
Coupled with a strong journalistic work ethic, the best stories not only have legs, they have an unbreakable, unwavering foundation.